Conga Conflict

Reporting on the conflict between the mega mining project Conga and the people of Cajamarca, Peru

Water or Gold? by Megan Ambrose

Water or Gold?

meganMy name is Megan Ambrose. I grew up in Wales in a small village near the sea but I’d always been eager to see the world. So at 18 I set out for South America to learn Spanish and immerse myself in a new culture. That’s how I arrived at the city of Cajamarca in Peru. At that point I wasn’t to know that a few years later I would return, that I would end up living there for the following five years as a singer-songwriter and also an English teacher at the National University of Cajamarca, and that my future would become intertwined with the future of the people there.

 The Gold of Cajamarca in Peru

Cajamarca is a beautiful city in the Andes of Northern Peru. From the large Spanish-colonial square at the centre of the city you can see the hills with their crops of corn and eucalyptus trees surrounding the green valley which lies at 2700m above sea level. Here, in the fascinating local market you can buy fresh vegetables from country women sat at their stalls or on the pavement; you can choose between hundreds of varieties of local potatoes, papayas the size of a large rugby ball; and many different kinds of cheese – Cajamarca is surrounded by rich dairy farming land.

 Cajamarca is also home to the famous Incan thermal baths where Atahualpa the Incan king would bathe over five hundred years ago. And it was here that the Spaniards arrived with their horses and firearms and over threw an Empire capturing Atahualpa and holding him ransom for a room full of gold. Although that room was more than filled with intricate golden objects from all over the Incan empire, Atahualpa, and many of the Cajamarcan people, were still massacred.

Maybe it’s fate or maybe coincidence, but today, 500 years after Atahualpa’s death, Cajamarca is again being plundered and its people threatened in the name of gold.

Because today Cajamarca is home to the largest gold mine in Latin America and one of the largest gold mines in the world:  Yanacocha.  Formed from the United States mining giant, “Newmont Mining Corporation”, a private Peruvian company “Buenaventura”, and the International Finance Corporation (member of the World Bank), Yanacocha  began almost twenty years ago when the Peruvian government was being run by the dictator Alberto Fujimori (currently serving 25 years in prison for crimes against his own people).  During his time in power  Fujimori is renowned for having granted huge areas of land for mining concessions to private transnational companies  –  Yanacocha was one such project.

 From the moment the Yanacocha company entered the region of Cajamarca there were problems. They began by taking advantage of the locals, buying land at 30 dollars for 10,000m2, and then threatening farmers who didn’t want to sell. Despite complaints and claims of hardship the company ploughed ahead. Not even one year into their production and the complaints became water-related. Cattle were getting sick, children were getting strange rashes, local fish began to die in the streams,  (the spokesperson for the mine officially telling the locals that the trout had probably died because they didn’t know how to swim!)  In the year 2000 the mine finally attracted international attention when there was a devastating mercury spill affecting over 11,000 people from and around the town of Choropampa. The clean-up operation was a disaster:  while the locals scooped up the mercury with bare hands, the Yanacocha company denied the severity of the situation saying that the affected inhabitants would feel better in a few weeks. Today people are still dying from mercury poisoning in Choropampa.

Then in 2004 Yanacocha decided it wanted to expand onto Cerro Quilish, one of the last sources of water for the growing city of Cajamarca. Thousands of people went into the streets in protest and after a long fight the people won. However, the local leaders and environmental activists became subject to a complex spy network, which was discovered in 2006 when one of the spies was caught in the street and the local police uncovered information with photos, videos and documented evidence of the whereabouts and movement of every leader and environmental activist in Cajamarca from the moment they awoke to the moment they went to bed. After the information was investigated by the respected Peruvian newspaper “La Republic” it was found that the spies received payments from a senior member of Forza: Yanacocha’s private security company. The case was taken to court. But the highly corrupt Peruvian judicial system overruled the claim saying there wasn’t enough evidence. That same year, 2006, one of the local leaders, Esmundo Becerra, who had appeared on the spy’s list and was campaigning against the mining company’s expansion onto Cerro Quilish, was mysteriously shot dead on his own land. Again there wasn’t enough information to charge.

megan2There has been on-going conflict between Yanacocha and those with concern for the environment. Today, where I live in Cajamarca the water is switched off throughout the city for nine or ten hours at a time.  It is being used in the gold mine.  In our homes it is difficult to cook and wash and use the toilets during these times – quite apart from the quality of the water being questionable. The water that Cajamarcan people get from their taps comes directly from the mine in four big tubes, goes to the little water treatment plant “El Milagro” and then comes straight to our houses. Most people know the water isn’t fit to drink and it’s likely that there are heavy metals in the water. But the only alternative is to buy water in bottles. And who has monopolised the majority of bottled water in Peru? The big international companies: Coca-cola and Pepsi, so the profit from water sales doesn’t even stay in Peru.

The Conga Project

However, for Yanacocha there’s a problem –  the mine is now almost 20 years old and it’s coming to the end of its life-span. Having cut away as much of the mountain as they could in their gold extraction activity, in 2010, Yanacocha proposed a new project: Conga.

megan3The beautiful area of Conga, at only 70km from the city of Cajamarca, rises up to over 4000 metres above sea level. The highland marshes are strewn with glistening natural lakes and over 600 fresh water springs, some of which form part of the five rivers which, from Conga, wind their way down through thousands of miles of farm land towards the coast of Peru or down to the Amazon River itself. The highland marshes, though at first glance forming a bleak landscape, in fact provide a unique habitat for hundreds of species of flora and fauna.  Of course, only the locals retain the sacred knowledge of the medicinal plants which provide natural remedies in a place where other medical aid is hard to come by.  But here, in this beautiful expanse where the locals live off the land, is where Yanacocha have decided to build their new multibillion dollar mining enterprise, shamelessly naming the new venture “Conga Mining Project”, after the land itself.

This new project intends to excavate over 90,000 tonnes of earth a day , draining those beautiful natural highland lakes which will then be used either as giant dumping grounds for the excavated soil, or as  open-pits themselves –  the natural holes the lakes provide save a lot of expensive digging. The gold itself is found in pieces so minute it’s invisible to the human eye and to separate these microscopic pieces of gold from the earth requires the use of cyanide which is constantly sprinkled over the scarred land. The environmental implications for the widespread use of cyanide are huge. Being an “open” pit mine the cyanide inevitably mixes with the rain water and it is near impossible to contain the toxic substance at a mine of this scale. Besides the cyanide there’s the danger of acid drainage caused just from exposing so much rock to the air. And of course there’s the issue of water use.

The Conga project proposes pumping about 1.4 million litres of water per hour which is what the average person would use in ten years. A large-scale gold mine typically uses over a million litres of water a day, which is over 10 times the amount we use in the city of Cajamarca. An  environmentally ethical company might go to incredible lengths to protect the surrounding land and water sources and make sure the cyanide never leaks into the ground; it might spend millions more to use alternative methods of separation to get  gold, instead of using highly toxic chemicals like cyanide and mercury. But with all its past history, and no laws to enforce environmental responsibility, Yanacocha will not be that company.

And even if this environmentally responsible mining company existed, you can’t escape from the fact that open pit gold mining is a ludicrous activity.  What is the gold actually used for?  Well, about 50% of all the mined gold in the world is found in jewellery, then central bank gold reserves horde about 20%, just over 15% is owned by organizations or institutions as investment, and about 10% is used in industries like dentistry and electronics though it is replaceable by other materials. It is no surprise that the United States of America, home of Newmont, the largest gold mining company in the world, is the country with the largest gold reserve in the world.  What I find hard to understand is just how gold managed to acquire a higher status of value than water. Because to me, and to the people living here in Cajamarca, water is more precious than any metal. Without water, life does not exist. Without water, we cannot survive!


“About 18000 kilos of earth has to be excavated for one gold ring”

Hope from the government?

So, last year when the presidential candidate Ollanta Humala came to Cajamarca and asked the hopeful voters “What’s more important? Water or gold?” there was a unanimous  reply of “Water!” and when he said “I’ve seen a group of lakes and they say they want to sell them. Do you want to sell your water?” the unhesitating reply was “No!!” So Ollanta gets voted into presidency, historically winning his position through his support from the rural community. Ollanta keeps all his promises and tells the mining company that the Conga mining project, which was approved by the previous government, cannot go ahead. Happy ending.

We wish.

The reality is that after only a couple of months in power, the people realised the president is no different from the previous string of fake smiles, corrupt liars, and even murderers. So the people of Cajamarca took to the streets.

megan5By November the year before last, the protests were in full swing, and I was there in the centre of the main square every day, in between teaching English or sometimes instead of teaching English, joining in the chanting of ‘Conga No Va!’ (‘Conga No Go!’), singing and playing music to keep the spirits up. With a group of artists we organised a huge mural of drawings and slogans that circled the fountain in the main square, where anyone could express their opinions or leave a message for the political leaders.  The slogan “No to Conga” also appeared inscribed on the mountainside in white limestone, overlooking the city. Then, the ministers from the central government came to “negotiate” with our regional government who have been supporting the people of Cajamarca the whole time. And we’d organized a carnival parade through the streets with impromptu and pertinent carnival verses to show support to our local leaders. But after a long day of debate the regional president came into to the main square to announce that, because they would not accept the viability of the project, the central government was putting the provinces of Cajamarca, Celendin , Bambamarca and Contumaza under State of Emergency!

Well, we knew that was bad, but at first we didn’t know what that meant. That day hundreds, and I mean hundreds, of armed forces arrived in the city of Cajamarca. And we very soon found out that a State of Emergency meant the armed forces had the power over us. We weren’t allowed to meet with more than four people anywhere, not even in our own homes. We weren’t allowed to protest in the streets, not even wear t-shirts with “Conga No Va” slogans. And, of course, they could arrest us or even shoot us without having to receive orders from above.  The atmosphere became tense and the following morning, the first day of State of Emergency, empty streets showed how afraid the Cajamarcan people were.

To make us feel better, the president came on air to clarify that he hadn’t meant to say “water or gold”, but really “water and gold”!

The State of Emergency lasted for two weeks.

Over the next few months the protests began to spark up again and by March Cajamarca was back in the national headlines with their National March for Water when thousands of Cajamarcans walked and bussed  1,000 kilometres to the national capital of Lima where they were then joined by thousands of protesters from around the country.

On strike

megan6After the success of the March for Water, many social organisations, including the teachers’ union and the workers’ union, announced an open-ended national strike which began at the end of May last year. Thousands of people from other towns and villages of the region came to Cajamarca, the region’s capital city, and the marches in the streets became daily. Many of the people from the other towns camped in the main square or in the grounds of the Franciscan church which had begun to fly a green flag as a sign of their support. The women set up a huge community kitchen in the grounds of the church where breakfast, lunch and supper were served: all financed by donations from the Cajamarcan citizens themselves. The atmosphere was bustling and positive, the chants in the streets were strong and the posters which covered the railings of the main square created an art gallery of reasons why the Conga mining project was, and still is, unfeasible. What I found particularly inspiring was the way the protesters were careful to stress that these were peaceful protests and that no violence would be tolerated.

However, after a week or two of constant marching in the streets and with no response from the government or the mining company, we started to get tired and everyone’s spirits started to fall. We needed new initiatives!

A symbol is born

megan7So, I sat down with a couple friends, some bread and Cajamarcan hot chocolate and started to think. What could lift the spirits of the protesters? What could attract attention to Cajamarca and raise awareness of the protest? It had to be something big, something eye-catching. And so we came up with an idea – What if we could sew the largest environmental flag in Peru or even the world?!

So the next day, we went to the fabric shop and bought three metres of green fabric. In the main square we laid out the piece of material and simply invited the members of public to help us out. They could donate green material, any shade, or some small change to buy thread, needles or more material. Within minutes the flag was growing: mothers and children, students, street-sellers, businessmen were all sewing by hand and if they didn’t know how to sew, well here they could learn!  Others wanted to draw images of the world or about caring for the environment, write pertinent slogans, put their handprints on the flag, or sign their names with their identity number as a petition. By the third day, the flag was over 30 metres long, we had up to fifty helpers, and a smooth system of needle-threaders and needle distributors, one group of students had even got hold of a small mechanical sewing machine. The atmosphere was relaxed and elated.

megan8However, the central government had been busy equipping Cajamarca with riot police recruited from the coastal towns: men who had already been brainwashed into believing that the protesting people of Cajamarca were radical terrorists who were against the economic development of the country; this false perception being encouraged  by the national press and media of course. So, when the police raided a  community kitchen on the other side of town, knocking over the cauldrons of food, beating independent reporters and passing citizens, the non-violent atmosphere suddenly changed. The police, and some say also disguised members of Yanacocha’s security company,  would circle the city on the back of 4×4 jeeps (owned by private local companies backing the mine or by private banks) attacking groups of protesters with plastic bullets or shooting canisters of tear gas into the streets.

megan9I remember on the third day of flag-sewing one 4×4 came right up to the main square and began to shoot tear gas at us. It was about three in the afternoon and the main square was full of people of all ages many of them helping us to sew or paint as we sat in the square beside the fountain . Suddenly, the canisters were falling no more than two metres from us , the air was filled with gas and I saw a young girl of about three standing in front of me, very scared. So I grabbed her and laid her down  below the fountain so she’d be safe. When I turned around everyone had fled except for two friends of mine and the three of us stayed guarding the girl and our thirty metre flag until the danger was over. Luckily we weren’t injured but in other parts of the city people had been badly wounded.

The next day was calmer. That day the flag grew to over fifty metres in length and over thirteen metres wide and we named it in the native tongue of Quechua the “Mamapachapa Unanchan”:  Mother Earth’s Flag!  At the end of the day we lifted the flag for the first time, all holding an edge or supporting it from below. Hundreds of people came running into the streets to help or just walk with us. It was thrilling and moving. Everyone there felt identified with this huge green symbol which billowed in the air above our head and seemed to gobble up the cars parked at the side of the road as we paraded through the streets of Cajamarca.



The feeling of elation couldn’t last for long. On the third of July, the police began to fire with real bullets and in the neighbouring town of Celendin four young men were killed, the youngest only 16 years old. The news was devastating.  This was a heart-wrenching injustice. These are people simply fighting for their land, their water sources, to protect their lifestyle. It’s a just cause. What kind of people want the mining project to go ahead so desperately that they are prepared to kill? What kind of people believe that those human lives are worth less than the money the project represents? That gold is more important than water, than life?

megan14That evening we went into the main square of Cajamarca and in a group of about fifty we began to sing with strong voices and with candles in hands and we raised a black flag in the mast of the main square. We were not only in protest but also in mourning. The police were more aggressive than ever and stormed the streets with tear gas and pellets. But we sat firm beneath the flag and sang and sang.

That night the central government declared another State of Emergency. But this time the response was different.  the following day everyone poured back into the streets and in the nearby town of Bambamarca yet another fellow protestor was killed.  We realised  it was only a matter of time before the square of Cajamarca was attacked again and our flag, destroyed.

So that day, we smuggled the Mama Pacha flag out of Cajamarca and  our symbol of hope for the environment began its journey around the rest of Peru. Over the next few weeks the flag visited some of the largest cities in the country, from Piura in the North to Cusco and Arequipa in the South. In each city a piece of green material was added and the local organisations were informed about the situation in Cajamarca. By the time the flag reached Lima at the end of its journey it was over 130 metres long!



By September the State of Emergency was finally lifted and, to mark the occasion and rekindle the hope, the Mamapachapa Flag travelled back to the Andes for its first visit to Celendin, in time for the town’s annual anniversary. The local mayor had suspiciously been convinced to ignore the mourning of the town’s people and had decided to throw a huge fiesta with a big band in the main square and a 15 metre long stage to celebrate…and what was particularly disrespectful was that the stage had been erected in the corner of the plaza where one of the Celendino men had been killed only three months before. Well the town’s people of Celendin were rightfully outraged. They didn’t want to celebrate dancing and drinking: they were still grieving. They gathered in the main square with candles and banners and forced the van bringing the sound system to leave. They covered the stage with candles and ignored the shielded riot police who were protecting the empty stage. Others had assembled a small stage with wobbly planks outside the church on the other side of the plaza. There were two small speakers and the town’s people gathered around. I’d been invited from Cajamarca along with other local artists to sing songs of justice, strength and love for the earth. Everyone joined in the singing and the mothers or wives of the men who’d been killed stepped up to speak. There was sadness but so much courage and unity. Meanwhile, beside the platform women made huge cauldrons of hot chocolate and everyone was given at least two mugs and several freshly baked bread rolls.

megan16The following morning, the flag was brought to the main square and laid out for all to see. The people of Celendin spent hours reading the messages of support from across the country, sewing up the parts which needed repairing after its adventures and adding on their own piece of green fabric. By midday the flag was ready and was lifted by the clamouring crowd, some underneath and others at the edges. The Mamapachapa was paraded proudly through the streets to the chants of the Celendin people who called down fellow town’s people from their balconies to join the march. I was overjoyed to see how the flag was able to lift everyone’s spirits again and channel their energy back into the fight for their land and water.

Lake guardians and the Chaupe family

Meanwhile, the Yanacocha mining company were charging ahead with their plans and their security guards had begun to patrol areas of the Conga land. So, in response, hundreds of local people moved up to the Conga lakes and began camping beside them – guarding the lakes from the mine invasion. On several occasions they have had to brave sabotage attempts from riot police and at all times they have had to brave the severe weather conditions but they never give up. No-one knew how long they would need to be there, but it’s now almost a year later and they continue to guard the lakes, hence becoming known as the Water Guardians.

megan17On the other side of the lakes the land belongs to the Chaupe family who have been living beside the Azul Lake for 20 years. Since 2011 the family, have been receiving death threats via telephone and on several occasions they have even been beaten by police and security guards sent to throw them off their land. And then, last year, the Yanacocha mining company took the entire family to court, accusing them of trespassing private property and demanding their immediate eviction of the land! This farming family, unlike other families who are too afraid to speak out, have been valiantly standing up to the mining company ever since.  The first court case took place at the end of 2012 and outrageously the family lost the case in spite of having the original deeds to the land, and furthermore, they were also forced to pay about $100 dollars a month to the multibillion dollar company! But the family are brave and are simply not stepping down. They’ve caught the attention of international organisations like Amnesty International but they still need to be supported in any way possible. Because of the conflicts, the family hadn’t been earning as much money off their land, so a few friends of mine got together to help them sell their Cajamarcan Conga Lake cheeses in Lima at Christmas time! Finally this August the family won a small victory against the mining giants when the court of Cajamarca declared not only the sentence but the entire legal process void, after recognising the lack of legal documentation and proof. This new sentence recognises the family was subject to a dubious legal process and that they were sentenced without sufficient proof. This brings to light the scarily unjust justice system here in Peru which can be easily manipulated if a company (like Yanacocha) has enough money to convince the law officals. For the Chaupe family, this means they will have to go through yet another hearing but this time with a (hopefully) impartial judge and taking into account all the evidence that proves they have the right to their land.

Our future

So, here in Peru, the lawsuits continue, the Water Guardians continue, and the Mama Pacha flag is continues to be frequently paraded through the capital city of Lima as well as up in the Andes in support of the Cajamarcan people and as a reminder to all that the fight to defend Conga and its lakes continues.

Protest against mining project in PeruHere, the hearts of the Cajamarcan people are still strong. They are willing to risk their lives for their land. But we need more help. We need the world to know what is happening. This fight isn’t just mine but it’s ours. This is a global issue. This same battle, between gold mining companies and communities defending their water and land, isn’t just being fought here in Cajamarca, but all over Peru, and in Argentina, in Colombia, Guatemala, Ghana, Romania, Papua New Guinea, in fact all over the world. And what’s more most people don’t even know this problem exists. I didn’t before coming here.

Most people I have spoken to have been shocked about how gold is produced and what sort of politics is involved in mining projects.  So, spread the word. Even if it’s just telling your friends about what you’ve just read. Use the social networks. Go online and find out more about these conflicts. Start to question what you buy and where it comes from. Stop unnecessary gold buying. Recycle gold. If you feel you need to buy gold, buy ethically sourced gold. Put pressure on electronics companies. If you want to do more, send a letter to mining companies, put pressure on them to stop using environmentally devastating mining methods and violating human rights to land and water, join a campaign… the question of water and how it’s being used and abused worldwide is a critical problem that we can’t ignore any longer. While in some parts of the world people can turn on the tap at any time and have seemingly limitless drinking water, in other parts water just cannot be taken for granted, we all need to take it into our hands the responsibility to demand solutions from the big businesses who divert and contaminate water for their own profit-led ends. It’s money and power vs common sense! Make your own Mama Pacha flag…get your own campaign going…

In writing I want to share how there’s a need for us to unite in inspired and creative ways to tackle some of these enormous problems.  Big business and big politics can often seem like impossible adversaries who we’re ill-equipped to engage with and be heard by. But each of our voices count and together we are even louder. Our green flag is a symbol made by hundreds of people showing solidarity and representing a strong people’s voice.  Our flag spreads hope as well as a powerful message. We have to embrace peaceful and community-based approaches to achieve worldwide changes which respect the environment and our fellow human beings.



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